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The last few weeks have been exciting on the Science Fiction module, my third year optional course.  Matt, one of my students, reviews computer games online.  While we were discussing William Gibson’s cyberpunk short story ‘Johnny Mnemonic’ in class, Matt pointed out that there is a new game, still under development, called Cyberpunk.  We all watched the trailer.  The dystopian visions of the game did not entirely match the high-tech, low-life world of Gibson’s cyberpunk city, but came close.

Watching such a film on your phone is one thing, but doing so in class is quite another – we are able to discuss a full-screen view of a futuristic city where technology works, but does not always help people.  Sometimes cars are so smart they can start thinking for themselves.  Or sometimes arrays of computer substrate planted inside people’s heads can be reprogrammed or even hacked. 

William Gibson anticipated this over thirty years ago in ‘Johnny Mnemonic’, whose main character is a human data storage facility – a walking hard drive.  But science fiction writers don’t always get the future right.  Johnny can store megabytes (yes, megabytes) of data in his head, and charges high prices to gangsters for the privilege.  But any twenty-first century criminal wouldn’t bother with Johnny when they could spend £3.95 on a flash drive and get gigabytes of storage they could carry in their pocket – or hide in a secret location in one of the grungy apartment blocks or smoky bars of the cyberpunk city. 

Gibson’s failure to predict the future reminded me somewhat of the reference in Aldous Huxley’s novel Brave New World (1932) to a society six hundred years ahead of ours that holds the personal data of its entire population . . . on miles of card index!  A pity Huxley had never heard of computers, as his dystopian world would have been far more vivid with them.

Card indexes might have been boring for Huxley’s readers.  But strangely, dullness can actually be interesting in science fiction, as the latest academic research is beginning to show.  Jonathan, my PhD student, is working on repetition and the everyday in science fiction – or how something exciting when first seen in a text can get pretty tedious, and is often intended to be, as the characters become more familiar with it. 

We all know of texts of first contact like Close Encounters of the Third Kind – but what about the tenth, or hundredth, or millionth contact with aliens?  Once intelligent extraterrestrials inhabit the same cities as we do, live next door to us and drink at the same coffee bars, contact with them might lose its appeal – or at least become as normal as meeting and living with boring old humans.

Next week, Jonathan is coming to class to talk to my science fiction students about how dullness works in Star Wars.  In one scene in The Last Jedi, a starship is seen descending onto a landing pad, its retro-jets in full blast to slow it down – until a clever change of camera angle reveals that the supposed ship is nothing other than an ordinary domestic iron, venting steam.  The iron is being used to press the imperial soldiers’ uniforms.  This is a knowing wink by the film’s director – a witty comment on how science fiction tries to make the ordinary exciting, created by reversing the technique and turning an exciting starship into something dull.

But, as Jonathan is saying in his doctoral thesis, science fiction often depends on dull moments and ordinary things.  Its project is to make the future seem so real it is understood to be a part of everyday life.  This applies even to a future in which, in fact, our descendants may not be human at all, but be cyber-organisms or cyborgs, augmented by implants and computer links to become something fundamentally different – other, beyond human.

How can being beyond human – or as we call it, being posthuman – ever seem dull?  It depends who’s looking at it.  When everyone has implants that allow immediate contact with everyone else (an app that one of my students christened Facebrain) then all thought would be processed via social media.  A dream or a nightmare? To the people of the future, neither – having your thoughts read by 7,028 friends all busy thinking the ‘like’ button just seems normal.  As it does, I think, to the students on the science fiction module, after all our discussions about it!

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undergraduate English Literature English

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